The fear of “disintermediation” that hung heavily over all of publishing–where traditional players are iced out of the marketplace altogether by new technology–seems, for the moment, to be simply a bad dream. As Pam Harris of Baker & Taylor recently said in Publishers Weekly:“Last year, the publishing industry got out in front of the marketplace. Today, the fear that books will be the vinyl records of content is simply gone.”
Of course, the dotcom experience (its debacle notwithstanding)–or more accurately, the impact of digital information technologies on the wide world of publishing–has brought with it some important wisdom. New technologies, for example, radically lower the barriers to entry to publishing, making it possible for organizations or even individuals (read agents and authors) who were not previously publishers, to become them. In addition, it is now possible to make a market in chunks of materials–”the article economy”–along with “whole” works, i.e. traditional books, textbooks, magazines, and newspapers. (When mention of this was made to international journal publishers at last year’s London Online meeting, an Arctic hush fell over the room. To their credit, most journals are beginning to deal with this new reality.)
At a more radical level, any organization that uses the Internet is also a de facto publisher, even if there is as yet no attempt to monetize the content involved. (As people start to realize the potential, it will be interesting to watch how that plays out in the marketplace.)
Current content hot spots include the fight between Random House and Rosetta (see page 9) about whether a traditional book contract also includes e-book “versions,” as well as the battle lines between libraries and content owners about scholarly and “fair use” access to e-materials. But from the perspective of the dynamics of the introduction of new technologies, where we are now with e-publishing seems pretty much on track. (With electricity, it might be remembered, there were ferocious debates as to whether electricity would be useful only for illumination or also for powering machinery, not to mention the knock-down/drag-out between proponents of AC vs. DC current.) In e-publishing, there are endless problems, failures, and great debates… yet things move slowly forward.
Creating Content Niches
It is interesting to follow the path of individuals and companies that are seeking to find a solid niche in the content marketplace by leveraging current assets or coming up with new subtle variations on traditional economic models.
On the individual level, there are people like M. J. Rose (www.MJRose.com), who brought her gifts as a writer and as a successful advertising executive to the Internet, publishing first online and successfully launching herself as an author. (Subsequently, she signed contracts with Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books and with Ballantine.) Along the way, she has amassed a list of thousands of e-mail addresses of fans and potential customers.
But is this scaleable? M.J. did it as an Internet pioneer. Will it work as thousands of writers try to do the same thing? Hard to say.
At the other end of the spectrum is the multibillion dollar Fortune 500 company variously known as UMI and then Bell & Howell, and now ProQuest. This is a case where a huge, originally microfilm-based archive of articles–ProQuest claims to be the largest aggregator of content after the Library of Congress–is being leveraged in digital format to propel a variety of businesses. Having shed a number of non-content divisions, ProQuest is creating a digital vault of some 6 billion discrete items. In addition, they will bring to market every issue of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post, going back to the very first issue of each publication. This will be an amazing resource for writers, scholars, and students, not to mention the general public. Reflecting on how his company has changed over the past two years, Joe Reynolds, President of ProQuest’s Information & Learning Division, says, “We are becoming a publisher.” (And you remember Bell & Howell as the name on those old 8-mm home movie projectors?)
ProQuest’s project reflects the resurgence of microfilm, a format that seemed destined for the dustbin with the arrival of digitized content. Curiously, however, the long-term instability of CDs and DVD (they spontaneously degrade in the course of a decade)–not to mention the constantly changing digital operating systems–has revived appreciation of this optical technology. True, it is possible to keep upgrading your systems and translating content to the newer formats. Nevertheless, when you are talking about millions of volumes of text and articles, it is no surprise that library customers of ProQuest are delighted by microfilm. Cannon, moreover, has just marketed a new copier that takes a paper document and simultaneously makes a digital copy (for library or commercial purposes) and a microfilm copy for archival purposes. Microfilm accounts for about a quarter of the $425 million in annual revenues that ProQuest’s Information & Learning Division brings in.
Another new division, XanEdu, drawing upon the company’s vast database of articles, is developing new products for the classroom, in both digital and Print on Demand versions. The current offerings take the form of supplementary readings known as “coursepacks.” Somewhere down the road, as learning material becomes more modular and XanEdu’s offerings start to include pedagogical material from professors, there will be a convergence between traditional textbooks and these nontraditional digital/print learning materials. For the moment, however, according to Lew Gossage, head of XanEdu, the company functions as a “Switzerland,” providing a variety of digital and Print on Demand services to established publishers of college materials.
Markets are some of the most interesting of human creations, both for their creative energy and for their unpredictability. John Lennon’s famous dictum, that life “is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” holds just as true for our business. We are all involved in a slow-moving, lazy game of musical chairs in which our roles as writers, publishers, technology providers, and booksellers will gradually change. Thus, it makes sense to keep an eye on what the other players are doing.
James Lichtenberg is a frequent contributor to publications like “Publishers Weekly” and the “Journal of Electronic Publishing.” He is President of Lightspeed, LLC, an e-business strategy and communications consulting firm.